I appreciate the pressure that the hon. Member faces in her constituency. My friend the hon. Member for North Devon expressed concerns about seaside resort cities and my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) is also experiencing this blight. The Airbnb situation is a further example of weaknesses in the planning system. Perhaps the planning system in a wider sense needs strengthening rather than planning enforcement—that might be the subject for another debate and another Bill—but I understand the pain of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) and that of her constituents.
I agree with the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge that it is not fair that while everyone else play by the rules, a tiny number are apparently able to cock a snook at the council and their neighbours. His Bill is not aimed at the far more common lower-level breaches such as residential extensions built higher or closer than allowed in planning permission or under permitted development rights, but neighbours say that the system takes far too long to sort out even those cases. People do not appreciate that planning enforcement is not like licensing, where a miscreant’s premises can be closed down immediately.
I turn to the Bill’s clauses. First, it would create a single England-wide database of all major or repeated planning enforcement breaches that would be publicly available. The cost of maintaining the database is to be covered by charging planning fees. Does that mean increasing current fees? Local planning authorities are currently each required to maintain their own register of enforcement and stop notices, which contains details of enforcement notices, stop notices, breach of condition notices and planning enforcement orders. The data is there, but it is not all in one place.
If enacted, the clause would make it really easy for planning enforcement officers to see whether they were dealing with regular offenders who work across a number of council areas. This could certainly be useful. For example, in prosecuting cases for failure to comply with enforcement notices, local planning enforcement officers could join up and bring a bigger case against that particular individual. A database would also provide a source of reference, so that planning officers could look at the types of breaches that have been enforced against and how officers in different boroughs dealt with them, such as the wording used for complex breaches.
Let me return to how the database would be resourced. The Bill refers to making a call on planning fees. However, there are any number of pressures on planning department budgets, thanks to 10 years of Government cuts to local councils, so if there were any opportunity to raise funds from planning fees to support the planning system, I am sure that borough planning officers would have a long list of greater priorities to spend that money on, such as employing more staff. This week, the Royal Town Planning Institute told me that it had a report of one authority that has just five planning officers to deal with everything: planning policy, planning applications and enforcement. Besides, why should well-behaved applicants be subsidising the prosecution of unauthorised activity? Although I appreciate the intent, and the proposal has some merit, I fear that the database could be seen as a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
Clause 2 would require all applicants for planning consent to declare if they or their company has ever had any planning enforcement action taken against them. One difficulty is that planning applications and planning permissions run with the land, and not the person who makes the application as such. It would therefore be quite easy for anyone to circumvent the need to declare whether they have had enforcement action taken against them or their company by simply getting someone else to put their name on the application.
Appearing on the list could also be held against someone in determining any application they make subsequently. Each application has to be judged on its merits and not the prior actions of a person making a new application on a different site. The provision could catch many perfectly innocent people who just do not understand the planning system. It ignores the fact that the majority of people subject to enforcement action breach the system unwittingly; in the vast majority of cases the process of being served with an enforcement notice leads them to rectify the mistake and, in the process, learn about the planning system. Why should they be forced to declare and have their past mistake hanging over them?
Clause 3 would enable the local planning authority to seek an injunction in the High Court, with the effect of a stop notice, so that no further planning applications could be considered on that particular site. Now, I am no planning lawyer but my understanding is that provisions for injunctions are already available to local planning authorities under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.
I share the frustration of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge with the situation in his constituency, and the cases raised by other Members. I do not know what other remedies were sought by the planning authorities in these egregious cases, nor why they did not work. As he will be aware, there are a number of tools in the enforcement officers’ armour that can be used to tackle ongoing and serious breaches of planning consent, and the ignoring of planning enforcement notices. Those tools include stop notices and temporary stop notices, POCA, planning enforcement orders if there may have been concealment—I remember the case of a farmer who built a house hidden behind walls of hay bales; I think he was prosecuted in the end—and injunctions, as I have already said.
Many of the appalling cases described by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge are subject to other criminal and civil proceedings relating to pollution, noise and smell, housing conditions and tenure, health and safety breaches, modern slavery and more.